White House Troubles
Glaring up from their front pages, The Washington Post and The (Baltimore) Sun readers awoke Thursday to learn that the day before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast there had been an internally televised conference of high-ranking officials.
George W. Bush participated from a hook-up on his ranch; he was on vacation at the time.
Together with the cabinet officer directly responsible for handling national disasters, it turns out the president was warned, in strong and unambiguous terms, the storm would prove a killer, with the likelihood of wide-spread flooding.
Coming from a news organization jointly owned by America's media, of all political persuasions, Mr. Bush absolutely didn't need that particular Associated Press story.
Not coming on top of the bombing of an Iraqi shrine that threatens civil war on top of the country's insurgency problem. Not in the wake of the still active controversy over the deal to allow an Arab emirate to operate American ports.
The president's cause was scarcely helped by yet one more example of Richard Cheney's total indifference to public opinion and the vice president's low regard for media.
In an appearance that does much to restore his shredded reputation, FEMA Director Michael Brown told his bosses, including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Katrina looked like "a bad one and a big one."
He specifically pointed to New Orleans' Superdome's planned use as a shelter, for example, as a potential trouble spot. He expressed fear there weren't enough disaster teams to help the potential evacuees.
A three-minute excerpt videotape proved Mr. Brown right on all counts, except in his expectation of backup from other federal agencies. He counted on Department of Defense "assets," notably troops. But it took days after the flood-walls caved in before active-duty personnel arrived.
The now-disgraced FEMA head made clear, with both Mr. Bush and Mr. Chertoff wired in:
"We're going to need everything that we can possibly muster, not only in the state and in the region, but the nation, to respond to this event." On the tape AP acquired from unidentified sources, the president is shown sitting stolidly, asking absolutely no questions: normally the sign that everything is clearly understood. At conference end he emphatically announced:
"I want to assure the folks at the state level that we are fully prepared not only to help you during the storm, but we will move into place whatever resources and assets we have at our disposal after the storm."
As the hurricane's winds and flooding overwhelmed federal "resources and assets," Mr. Chertoff flew down to Atlanta, safely removed from Katrina's path, for a previously scheduled seminar on bird flu.
Returning to Washington, cutting his vacation short a few days later, Mr. Bush flew over the stricken area; he did not show up in New Orleans until the 82nd Airborne Division's arrival ensured his personal safety, later in the week.
This soon after the revelations, it is impossible to guess the impact the AP "scoop" will have on the president's sagging image. Right before the story hit, a new poll claimed his approval rating had sagged under 40 percent; Mr. Cheney's was twice as bad.
Democrats who are staging a whoop-it-up over the series of White House catastrophes dance without me. The administration's troubles, by Shakespeare's "battalions," have little to do with party.
Reluctantly but decisively, Republicans have made known their reservations and discontent with Mr. Bush's handling of important issues, including the war in Iraq.
The congressional GOP members are no less disturbed, than their colleagues across the aisle, with the cavalier way bureaucrats rubber stamped the sale of British-owned Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. to Dubai Ports World, which belongs to the emirate. Operating major American ports comes with the package.
The specter of an Arab nation holding sway over U.S. harbors contradicts everything the White House has said since 9/11; it matters little, in this case, that the current English-American management team will carry-on, as it has in recent years.
Protests that the president was never personally involved in approving the transaction should be believed. Under normal circumstances, it would be quite enough to win approval from the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States. Before saying yes, the committee addressed specifically the issue of security, it turns out. Never mind!
These are not normal times. Mr. Bush and his strong-willed crew, including Mr. Cheney, have long invoked the vision of an attack on these shores from the Muslim world; in their rhetoric the public is given little reason to trust any Arab, even those tagged as friends.
Dubai falls very much in that category; not only providing coalition forces maybe the largest base in the Middle East, the emirate is one of the very few Muslim countries to send soldiers into Afghanistan to support our position.
The existential problem in the deal can be found in how it was conducted; it was so routine as to guarantee suspicion. Running under radar placed it in the same category as the way the vice president conducts official affairs.
Mr. Cheney and the White House press office were more than naive in how they tried to treat the vice president's accidental wounding of a fellow hunter. Delay and obfuscation served to blow up an incident that should have been handled routinely, including quick release of the details to the media and their audience.
Sitting on the story until the next day served to magnify what is rather a common happening in America's fields and forests. Wearing sensible bright orange did not save the vice president's victim.
The combination of deadly fire, eager anticipation and unfamiliar surroundings remove hunting from the category of a safe sport. Nevertheless, it holds an irresistible fascination for residents of this once-frontier country.
Unfortunately, withholding word of the accident fed into the vice president's penchant for secrecy, a reputation earned early in office when he actively fought to squelch any information about his palavers with energy corporations.
The last thing the White House needed at this juncture was another example to reinforce the notion this administration operates chiefly out of sight. But it seems to do.
Coming on top of frequent insistence that George W. Bush and his top-ranking colleagues were caught totally unawares by Hurricane Katrina's devastation, the Associated Press-released videos and reports apparently confirm Americans are told only what the White House wants us to hear.
And that's a pity!